Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Tuesday Talkback: Bad actor or bad writing? Shailene Woodley in The Descendants vs. Secret Life

If you've been reading my blog for a while, you've probably seen a rant or two that I wrote about the abomination that is ABC Family's The Secret Life of the American Teenager.  It is quite possibly the perfect storm of everything terrible in television, an utter failure on every possible level.  The writing sucks, the directing sucks and the acting couldn't be more wooden if the leads were Pinocchio and Howdy Doody.

I once said that if I was casting a movie or a TV series, no one who had Secret Life on their resume would even get through the door to auditions.  The cast is uniformly THAT BAD on the series, led by an actress named Shailene Woodley.

Funny coincidence, in Alexander Payne's The Descendants, the actress who gives an amazing performance as George Clooney's daughter is also named Shailene Woodley.  Even funnier coincidence, the two girls look exactly alike.  I thought SAG had rules about two different actors using the same name, for surely this had to be some kind of twin-trick ala Full House crediting the Olsen Twins as "Mary Kate Ashley Olsen."

It's not?  The girl playing Clooney's daughter is the same actress who seemingly couldn't act her way out of a paper bag on Secret Life?  A wet paper bag at that?

My world makes no sense.

If you saw Secret Life, you'd not find potential in any of the young performers who robotically read their lines.  The acting is routinely on the level of a school play performance where a case of stomach flu has forced the casting of understudies a mere two hours before curtain.  And surely the material is responsible for much of the blame, but it's amazing that an actress who's so GOOD in one production is almost embarassing to watch in another.

It's a good lesson for us to take as writers - if an actor sucks, sometimes it's our fault.

I'm curious if any of you can recall an instance where an actor whom you'd written off managed to absolutely knock a subsequent performance out of the park.  Discuss below.


  1. There are 3 actors: Mickey Rourke, Ryan Reynolds, and Shia Labeouf. I grew up watching all those 80's movies, so I thought Mickey Rourke was an overrated actor, until I saw Barfly. Then I thought that was a fluke...until I saw Sin City.

    I thought Ryan Reynolds was a model/actor, that was the only explanation I could think of to explain how he kept getting movie roles. And apparently someone told him he was funny and I was left out of the joke. Then I saw The Nines streaming on Netflix and was amazed. I don't like his obnoxious roles, ie The Proposal, Van Wilder, etc. but if he's given something to do, ie. Buried and Definitely, Maybe, he can give a great performance.

    I can't count how many times I have sat through a movie and actually grown when I see Shia Labeouf come on screen. He plays the smart alecky, obnoxious young guy who's supposed to provide comic relief. Then I see New York I Love You and am stunned at his performance. He's so still and quiet and he's so good with Julie Christie. So far that was a fluke because he's done Eagle Eye, Transformers, Wall Street 2, etc.

  2. Steven Seagal's hair. In the plot-descriptive 'Above The Law', Seagal's bouffant was weak, drab, and unconvincing. Yet suddenly, in the equally informative title 'Hard To Kill' his coiffure was strong and vibrant.

    Indeed, Mr Seagal's hair has gone from strength to strength since then, and now steals every film with its scenery-chewing powerhouse performances, whether he's 'Out For A Kill' or merely 'Born To Raise Hell'.

  3. I don't think it's a binary question, bad actor or bad script. There are many factors that can be responsible for a less-than-effective performance. My feeling is that the director must shoulder much of the blame for bad performances (in features more than TV).

    Casting can doom a performance. A young actor with no formal training who gets cast in a period piece can flounder without both a good director and the will to dig in and find the performance. Sometimes it's not even the director who made the decision to hire the actor. The producer or the studio might have wanted a young movie-star without the acting chops to realize the role.

    There are directors who have a great visual style and are maestros with the camera, but they have no idea how to work with actors as anything other than meat puppets. Conversely, there are directors who make visually boring films, but because they understand story and actors can get great performances that are far more engaging than a well-choreographed tracking shot or action sequence.

    There are so many ways that a production can go to shit that it's hard to point to one thing. On many occasions it's a series of choices and circumstances that doom a project to mediocrity or worse.

  4. Almost anyone in a STAR WARS sequel (Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Samuel Jackson, Natalie Portman, etc.) does better elsewhere. George Lucas can make anyone look bad.

  5. Had written off Nic Cage until his tour de force in "The Wicker Man"...

  6. I think sometimes it's a bad director, not a bad script, that makes for a bad performance.

    The best example of this is Jim Carrey.

    When the director has no real control - like any Ace Ventura movies - Carrey gives the most hammy, bad performances.

    Get a director that can get him under control and you can get anything from the good performance in The Mask to the awe inspiring performance in The Truman Show. Heck, even Once Bitten is a tour de force when compared to Carrey out of control.

    So maybe Secret Life could actually blame it's bad acting on a lousy director. Let's face it, only actors who can rise above a bad director are Alan Rickman and Morgan Freeman. Those two could make a Uwe Boll movie look Oscar worthy.